Analysis: The real danger in Syria is not ISIS, but a war between major powers

There are many unpredictable aspects of the Syrian conflict, but the downing of the Russian bomber by Turkish jets on Tuesday was not one of them. Indeed, given the simultaneous military campaigns taking place in a relatively small swath of territory by Russian, American, French, Syrian, Iranian, and other forces, it is surprising that such an incident did not happen earlier. Nevertheless, the downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkish jets marked the first attack on a Russian fighter aircraft by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state since 1953. Although this incident is not by itself sufficient to provoke an armed conflict between Turkey and Russia, it illustrates the main danger confronting the world in Syria, namely a conflagration between regional powers, many of which are armed with nuclear weapons.

Rather expectedly, a visibly furious Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not used to being challenged militarily, described the incident as “a stab in the back” by “accomplices to terrorists”, and warned Ankara of “serious consequences”. But why would Turkey provoke Russia in such a direct way? Like every other country involved directly or indirectly in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and Russia wish to see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) destroyed. But they differ drastically on what should follow. The Kremlin is adamant that President al-Assad, whom it considers its strongest ally in the Middle East, should remain in power. The Turks, on the other hand, view the Syrian president as an existential threat, due to his support for Kurdish militancy throughout the region.

The roots of the animosity between the Turkish state and the al-Assad regime go back to 1978, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was established in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which was at the time occupied by Syria. The PKK is a Marxist militant organization that seeks to establish a Kurdish homeland in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. The group was actively trained, funded, armed and protected by Syria and the Soviet Union. The latter was actively interested in destabilizing Turkey, a NATO member, while Syria used the PKK to exercise pressure on its northern neighbor, with whom it was embroiled in a series of complex land- and water-rights disputes. In 1998, the al-Assad regime was forced to expel PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who was living in Damascus under Syrian protection, after Turkey threatened an all-out war if the Syrian intelligence services continued to shelter the PKK leadership.

What will happen next? Theoretically, Turkey could invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which would compel member-states to rush to its assistance. In reality, however, such an eventuality is remote, especially given the expressed willingness of Western leaders to help deescalate the Turkish-Russian row. Following their closed-door meeting on Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande and his American counterpart Barack Obama went out of their way to avoid mentioning the Russian plane incident, and briefly commented on it only after they were asked to do so by reporters. This does not mean that Russia will not respond; but it will most likely do so behind the scenes, probably by increasing its support for the PKK and other Kurdish separatist groups.

The possibility of a serious conflagration between heavily armed regional actors will be removed only if and when the Syrian Civil War ends, even if that results in the loss of land to the so-called Islamic State. That must be the immediate goal of the Combined Joint Task Force and every other regional actor that wishes to see the end of ISIS. It is only after peace has been achieved in Syria that ISIS can be dealt with effectively.

Full article: Analysis: The real danger in Syria is not ISIS, but a war between major powers (IntelNews)

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